Preferred Citation: Seminar on Feminism & Culture in Latin America. Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.

Nine— Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Dreaming in a Double Voice

Poetic Portrait, Epistemological Self-portrait

The Primero Sueño explores the available modes of human knowledge from the geometrical movements of celestial bodies to the intricate workings of the human body, using induction, logic, and intuition, all revealed as inadequate in the waking world. The poem is shaped by the limits of human knowledge. Sor Juana's poetic portraits and self-portraits confront and are shaped by the limits of female identity. They are also shaped by and confront the literary conventions of the time.

Although the terms "verbal portrait" and "self-portrait" suggest analogies with the visual arts, it is only the verbal portrait, as in the medieval blason or the Petrarchist representation of the lady's attributes, that enumerates physical attributes. Literary self-portraiture, a mode distinct from verbal portraiture as well as from autobiography, is a representation of the subject's consciousness—not how the writer appears to others, nor the events in her life, but what she knows and how she explains her knowing it. The exploration of human knowledge, ranging from the relationships of the stars and the shadow of the earth on the moon to the internal processes of the body in sleep, in the Sueño , exemplifies self-portraiture as an epistemological and encyclopedic mode.[18] This is a mode distinct from Sor Juana's autobiographical narrative in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea , although her self-representation in the letter goes beyond the narration of experience.

The vast epistemological vision of the Sueño is given the greatest latitude within contemporary poetic conventions through the metrical form of the silva , irregularly rhymed, having no fixed stanzaic form, and through the generic classification of "dream vision." But if this kind of dream need not be gendered until the moment of waking, in which the dreamer's voice is identified, the poet cannot so easily suppress her female perspective in verbal portraits describing other women, for example her patroness the Condesa de Paredes in the romance decasílabo "Lámina sirva el cielo al retrato" [may heaven serve as the plate for the engraving]. The traditional medieval blason and, later, the Petrarchan portrait objectify the woman in terms of her physical attributes from head to toe, attaching metaphysical attributes through metaphor to each detail of her body but explicitly rejecting any inherent value in the object chosen for contemplation. Sor Juana's verbal portraits of her patronesses expose the contradictions of neoplatonic love poetry. If it is only the soul's correspondence to spiritual values that is represented in the metaphorical representation of physical beauty, and the poetic portrait is


truly devoid of the erotic intent that physical description seems to imply, then it should not matter whether the subject contemplating and describing a woman's physical beauty is male or female. But desire is the central issue of Renaissance secular poetry, and it was a bold aesthetic departure for a female subject to enter the closed system of male observers and speakers, each outdoing the other's verbal representations of female objects.

There are cultural barriers to the female poet's inscribing her gaze on the female body as well as barriers to her inscribing her own body, and those cultural barriers are products of the prohibition of female desire. Courtly love conventions position the beloved as dominant and denying her favors to the devoted male lover, whose description of her beauty has the literary function of substituting for his control of her body. The women Sor Juana describes and to whom she dedicates much of her secular poetry were in fact in positions of real power; they were her patrons. The poems cast an ironic light on the claims of Renaissance poetry, a kind of irony possible only in a poem signed by a woman.

The potential for mockery of the spiritual intentions of the lyric voice in Renaissance poetry had been exploited by some of Sor Juana's male predecessors. Petrarchist poetry, abounding in lexicalized metaphors of hair as gold, eyes as suns, lips of coral, complexion of marble or crystal, teeth as pearls, inspired Francisco de Quevedo to explode the conventions and ironically consider how much the metaphorical jewels and gold would fetch on the market. The terms of the metaphor—the corporeal beauty and the precious metals and stones to which it is compared—are equally physical and lacking in transcendent value. The function of the precious objects, to elevate physical beauty to a metaphysical realm, is debased as the poet converts them into market value and calls attention to the objectification of the beloved.

In her romance decasílabo "Lámina sirva el cielo al retrato," Sor Juana uses a more subtle approach to the exploitation and parody of conventional poetic portraiture. Her female identity creates a witty tension between eroticism and intellectualization. She asserts that only the heavens can serve as a surface on which to inscribe this portrait ("lámina," in Trueblood's translation, a plate for engraving rather than canvas) and requests that the stars compose "syllables" to represent her. By textualizing the female body, Sor Juana challenges the objectification of women in Renaissance portraiture and affirms herself as writer.

She chooses erudite images from a wide range of classical and contemporary contexts: the Condesa de Paredes's face is compared to that of "Hécate," her waist to the Bosporus, her legs to Doric or Ionian columns, her grace to a banana tree. Sor Juana restores some value to the endeavor of representing her patroness by transferring the imagery of the complexion from the realm of pure sensory delight to that of intellect, in a personification reminiscent of Góngora's image of straw in Polyphemus's overflowing shepherd's pouch, as


"pálida tutora" [pale governess] dutifully carrying out the responsibility of ripening fruit. In Sor Juana's poem,

Cátedras de abril, tus mejillas,
clásicas dan a mayo, estudiosas:
métodos a jazmines nevados,
fórmula rubicunda a las rosas.[19

[Your cheeks are April's lecture halls, / with classic lessons to impart to May: / recipes for making jasmine snowy, / formulas for redness in the rose.][20]

Thus, Sor Juana's wit is based on a metaphorical and authoritative structure of pedagogy and of plays on the classical etymologies of words themselves. As ingenio , wit itself represents the processes of consciousness and of poetic creation.

Sor Juana renews the old metaphors of feminine beauty, even in a poem that purports to participate in a traditional mode of depicting women as passive and as metaphorical possessions through contemplation in terms of objects of value. This project is not without ambivalences and contradictions. The poet constitutes the female as a culturally created object while she defiantly affirms her own legitimacy as female subject, participating in that culture and inscribing the female body into culture rather than nature as poetic symbol of transcendent value and theological symbol of inherent female sinfulness. Thus, by textualizing the female body in the romance decasílabo Sor Juana rejects the division of nature from culture and the corresponding gender categories.

Sor Juana portrays herself as literary creator and mocks the conventions of verbal portraiture in her "Ovillejos," a conscious imitation of Jacinto Polo de Medina's "Fábula burlesca de Apolo y Dafne" in its skeptical attitude toward the possibility of portraying "Lisarda" in words.[21] Polo began with the feet instead of the head in his description of purely literary beings; Sor Juana does not even begin her description of Lisarda until line 229, and she does not in fact portray anything but the endeavor of verbal portraiture itself. To emphasize the burlesque nature of this portrait, Sor Juana refers to an anecdote cited twice by Cervantes in part 2 of Don Quijote , concerning the bad painter Orbaneja, whose anarchic aesthetic motto was "Dé donde diere" (2.3 and 71). Sor Juana claims to paint

dé donde diere,
salga como saliere,
aunque saque un retrato,
tal que, después, le ponga:  Aquéste es gato .

[haphazardly; let the picture come out as it will, even if it produces a portrait on which afterwards a label will have to be attached: "This is a cat."]


While the medium of forms and colors should be sufficient for the painter to convey his meaning without the assistance of another art, the poet who is already working with words playfully suggests the need for a clarifying label borrowed from writing, a medium that is in fact not outside her activity but already inscribed within it.

Amid descriptions of the difficulties of poetic creation, the lyric speaker makes a pointed observation about the vanity of traditional love poetry:

¿ Pues qué es ver las metáforas cansadas
en que han dado las Musas alcanzadas?
No hay ciencia, arte, ni oficio
que con extraño vicio
los poetas, con vana sutileza,
no anden acomodando a la belleza;
y pensando que pintan de los cielos,
hacen los retablos de sus duelos.

[What are all the tired metaphors with which poets have overtaken the Muses? There is no science, art, or profession the poets have not, with strange malice and vain subtlety, accommodated to beauty, and thinking that they paint the heavens, they paint altarpieces to their sufferings.]

The conventions of courtly love, she points out, verge on masochistic idolatry.

The creative voice and a critical one engage in a dialogue that culminates in the attempted affirmation, "Es, pues, Lisarda; es, pues . . ." [Lisarda is, well, she is . . . ]. In response, the internal "critic" complains that this poem is a painting and not a definition. Considerable energy is spent on the attempt to rhyme with "Lisarda"; the poet struggling with the unwieldy medium of language in poetic form is the true object of representation in this verbal portrait. The closing line of the poem affirms that the "Ovillejos" represent poetic process and do not create a static visual image: "Juana Inés de la Cruz la retrataba" [Juana Inés de la Cruz was portraying her].

It is not only Sor Juana's verbal portraits of other women that challenge the objectification of women. The Sueño and her defense of female intellectual activity in the Respuesta establish the validity of the female subject. In Sor Juana's poems, this female subject is inseparable from her self-contemplation and contemplation of other women. Her sonnet "Este, que yes, engaño colorido," a meditation on her painted portrait as a deception, confronts and demystifies the enigmas of time and desire in the tradition of carpe diem poetry, traditionally urging the lady to enjoy her transitory beauty by yielding to her suitor's desires. The clarity of the lyric voice deflects the possessive gaze from her own image and instead turns a mirror toward the male observer, as Diego Velázquez's Venus challenges the expected view of herself and, if the


visual logic of the painting is followed, contemplates the voyeur in her mirror.

While Velázquez's mirror shows only an enigmatic face and reveals nothing of what is seen by the woman, Sor Juana's poetic voice interprets the image of feminine beauty as a symbol of mortality, the ostensible theme of all seductive carpe diem poetry. But it is the profound and almost violent irony with which she exposes the irrationality of the traditional appeal to yield to fleshly temptation because of one's mortality that is striking in the sonnet. Although Sor Juana echoes Luis de Góngora's sonnet "Mientras por competir con tu cabello," in her poem the female speaker, whose face is the object portrayed in the painted representation of beauty, reveals the irrationality of the genre. Her representation of the true nature of mortal beauty is shocking: "es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada" [it is a cadaver, it is dust, it is shadow, it is nothing]. She dramatically transforms her poetic models and renders Góngora's "en sombra, en polvo, en tierra, en humo, en nada" [into shadow, dust, earth, smoke, nothing] a euphemistic evasion.

Sor Juana's female perspective illuminates the contradictions of time and desire inherent in the topos of carpe diem in its Counter-Reformation theological context. The speaking subject explores the questions of being in the world, being for oneself, being in relation to God—questions that require a valuing of the subject and not her painted representation. The terms are reversed, as in any mirror, by the gender difference in the speaking subject, from temporal pleasure to eternal salvation.

Sor Juana confronted questions of female perspective that cannot be isolated from the aesthetic and philosophical questions implicit in each literary work. When one addresses the specific problems of literary portraiture in Sor Juana's work, the paradoxes and contradictions apparent in the polemical letters and the daring Sueño are necessary points of reference. The audacity of a woman poet's usurpation of the male role of observer of women is the first obvious confrontation of the poet with the limitations imposed by gender as defined by her society. But this is only a single image in the mirror she holds up to gender (as in her sonnet on her portrait, "Este, que ves . . ."), to the codes of behavior for nuns, and to the definitions of theological and secular knowledge in her time. Her female identity combined with her erudition made it possible for her to equal and often exceed the expertise of her hierarchical superiors in terms of the systems of knowledge of the times. She manipulated these codes in the defense of women's learning, seeming to reproduce them, but with a baffling difference that astounded by its ingenuity but could not, ultimately, protect her from those in power. In her polemical letters, she cites Scripture and interprets it historically to defend women's right to study, if not to preach or take a public role in the religious hierarchy, but ultimately Scripture belonged to the bishop of Puebla, and to more powerful enemies of an autonomous female subject. While the Respuesta


was written in a mode of scholarly discourse the bishop would recognize as his own—a mask donned by the female writer to gain entrance into male realms of theological debate—the bishop had condescendingly or ironically affirmed Sor Juana's female identity as the writer of her Carta Atenagórica , by signing his reply "Sor Filotea," as if it were undignified for a male superior to engage in intellectual debate with a female inferior.

Nine— Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Dreaming in a Double Voice

Preferred Citation: Seminar on Feminism & Culture in Latin America. Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1990 1990.